When Emma Raducanu stepped out on the Cincinnati court against her idol, even she could scarcely have believed the emphatic role she was about to play on Serena Williams’ farewell tour.
Her widely anticipated meeting with the greatest tennis player of this era quickly faded into something of a sombre watch as the 19-year-old eased past her in straight sets and even bageled the star in her 6-4, 6-0 victory.
It was hardly the box-office hit that Team Serena fans who had flocked to Ohio had been hoping for, in which Raducanu, in one of her finest performances since her Flushing Meadows triumph last year, dominated.
In a measure of the unbound respect the Bromley teenager has for the tennis legend, there was no fist-pumping in between points, no self-congratulatory roars of, ‘Come on!’ She quietly - and respectfully - went about her business dispatching tennis’ Greatest of All Time, bullying Williams with her powerful groundstrokes and delivering a series of searing returns off the American’s buckling serve. For all Raducanu’s brilliance - in which she hit 14 winners and just one unforced error - this was a sad, subdued and painful passing of the torch.
That much was clear when Williams made a hurried exit - even refusing an on-court interview that organisers desperately craved. Raducanu’s celebration was muted, before giving a classy on-court interview in which she graciously deflected the spotlight away from herself.
“I didn’t really want to make a scene,” Raducanu said in her press conference. “She’s done so much for the sport, that yeah, I respect her a lot. I think that no big celebration was necessary. I think the biggest celebration is just like what the crowd kind of gave her and honoured her. Myself, as well.”
As someone who wasn’t even born when Williams won her first Grand Slam singles title at age 17 at the 1999 US Open, Raducanu clearly sensed the awkwardness of the occasion.
For those who remember Williams at her peak, it was a hard watch. The American mounted 19 unforced errors, splayed returns wide and became frustrated by her non-firing second serve with four double-faults. She briefly showed flashes of the true champion she is when she broke Raducanu while 4-1 down in the first set, before fading and succumbing to the eighth bagel of her career.
Around the court, there were signs of how Williams’ presence transcends tennis. She was watched on by her four-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia, whose complicated birth in 2017 would prompt Williams to shine a spotlight on the racial disparity in the maternal mortality rate in the US.
It was a poignant reminder that, simply being there and marching out onto the court with her game face on, was an achievement in itself for this inspirational sporting mother.
There had been speculation that the postponement of her showdown with Raducanu was due to a knee injury Williams has been struggling with. Tournament organisers trotted out a rather vague explanation for the late scheduling change on Monday, but it did little to stifle the rumours circulating on social media that Williams was not completely match fit.
The tennis legend is no stranger to chronic knee tendonitis, a condition which she has battled on and off throughout her career. While it is impossible to know how much of an issue her knee actually was, her lack of match volume was painfully obvious: this was her fourth singles match in the past 14 months.
Williams now has 11 days to make last-minute adjustments before the start of the US Open, although there is a realistic limit to how much she can achieve during such a time frame.
Given her laboured movement around the court in her error-strewn showing against Raducanu, a fairytale Flushing Meadows run for now seems unlikely. “I was nervous from the first point to the last point because I know what a champion she is,” Raducanu told Martina Navratilova on Amazon TV. “She can come back from any situation.”
But this is a situation Williams has not faced before. In less than a fortnight’s time the 40-year-old will attempt to write the epilogue to her extraordinary career. The tennis world is holding its breath that her body can make it to the finish line.